100 Scope Notes
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Controversy Report: It’s a Book

I have an uncanny ability (see also: curse) to agree with both sides of an argument. Although I am an avid fan of sports programs where everyone yells their hastily-formed, yet brazenly unwavering opinions at each other, I personally try to avoid blowhard-ism at all costs. I try to see both sides.

Which is why I’ve waited to say anything about It’s a Book by Lane Smith, which has been stirring up a bit of controversy lately for its use of the word “Jackass”.

School Library Journal recently published a story describing the book and the hubbub surrounding it. Interesting stuff. Click the image below to read it.

Part of the reason I didn’t feel the need to chime in earlier is because others were covering the topic pretty well.

I agree with Philip Nel’s assertion that Smith’s word choice isn’t simply an “easy” joke.

I concur with What Adrienne Thinks About That’s belief that those who don’t like the book shouldn’t bother those who do.

I’m with MotherReader, who expressed that reading the conclusion with youngsters causes a certain level of discomfort.

I can’t argue with A Chair, a Fireplace & A Tea Cozy and Kids Lit who both say that the themes of It’s a Book make it better suited for readers who are older than the standard picture book audience.

So what do I think? I look at it from an elementary school librarian’s perspective. While I’ll certainly have this book around, I don’t see myself reading it aloud to a group. Am I a prude? Maybe. But I also am not a fan of using what is, in many families, an off-limits word in a group setting. Should the book be in libraries? Yes. Would I read it to my child? No question. And while I’m with Kirkus Reviews in calling the use of the word in question a bit “gratuitus”, there’s no real harm done here.

What say you?

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. In Australia, we’ve been asking, ‘What’s the problem?’. My cousin is known as Jack (that is nothing like his name) because his father called him a jackass for so long that it stuck. It’s just an Aussie slang for a silly galoot; a friendly, blokey way of ribbing in another.

    But after chatting with some American friends on #pblitchat, I now understand the offense of the word in your culture – and therefore the furore around the book.

    It’s getting great reviews in Australia and I am looking forward to ‘getting’ it (the book and the joke). There is no cringe factor for Aussies. I think Lane Smith must have written it especially for us. ;)

    • Thanks for bringing a different perspective – interesting to hear how this book is received in other places.

  2. Another case of different strokes for different folks!

  3. Well, the book is #4 on PW’s children’s pb bestseller list, so there are a whole lot of people in the US who aren’t offended by the book either. I’d guess that Lane Smith is laughing about this, all the way to the bank.

    We can pair this controversy with the one about the NYT picture book article. Remember? Older kids don’t reading picture books anymore! So it follows that all picture books must be suitable for 3 year olds.

    Not all books are for all people. There’s a big difference between keeping it out of your collection altogether, and simply not reading it to a class.

    • Plenty of good points here, Debbie. I think a big part of the fuss is the fact that everyone looks at the book through their own lens. When I see It’s a Book, I quickly jump to how it would work during a story time, a parent will likely think of a one-on-one setting, and so on. I read an interview with Smith (which I tried to quote for this post, but couldn’t find) where he said something along the lines of “if you don’t agree with the punchline, you don’t need to buy the book”, which sums things up pretty well. Libraries are in a bit of a different position, but I’m with you – “There’s a big difference between keeping it out of your collection altogether, and simply not reading it to a class.” True.

  4. Travis, I agree that I wouldn’t share this in a group readaloud and I also agree that as a librarian, I’m immediately looking at all our new picture books in terms of read-aloud potential. I just have this wonderful picture in my head of elementary school students discovering this book on the shelves and delighting in the final joke, passing it around to their friends, etc.

    • Looks like we’re pretty much on the same page here Abby.

      I think it’s worth noting that school librarians seem to be leading the controversy charge (at least according to the SLJ article). I say that is because the whole school culture of “molding young minds” comes into play more than in public libraries. Anyone care to comment on the School vs. Public Library perceptions?

  5. I’m coming at it from the perspective of both a preschool teacher and a mom of kids aged 10, 4 and 3. There’s no way I could have this book in my classroom– I couldn’t read it for story time and I wouldn’t want a student aide to be asked to read this one-on-one to a 4 year old child who was attracted to its cover.

    As a mom, I’m not going to read this to my younger kids, in particular for the reason of the term jackass– not a term that I find appropriate for their vernacular. My ten year old, however, might potentially be amused by this book, for its use of an off-color word, but also because the content of the book would make a lot more sense to him than to my younger children.

    That’s what I find curious about this one- beside the use of jackass- are other folks finding that the preschool-2nd grade set (who picture books are typically aimed at) even understand this? Don’t get me wrong, I’m technologically saavy- I blog, I tweet, I text now and then- but my 4 and 3 year olds don’t, so when I read this to them substituting JA with “Mr. Donkey,” they didn’t even understand what the JA’s problem was!

    Another issue that I have is that since Lane Smith decided to create this as a picture book, it will now be housed on library shelves in an area where parents, often unsuspecting and not pre-reading what they and their children borrow, will assume that it is appropriate fare for the youngest set by its sheer nature as a picture book. I know I’m not the only one who wouldn’t choose to share this with their younger children, so while I personally appreciate Smith’s message of the book, I just wish he had chosen a different type of venue through which to convey it.

    My two pennies–

    • Looks like you’re agreeing w/ what other have said about the theme not working for lower elementary, which is a fair assessment to make. While picture books for older readers are always welcome a welcome sight for me, I agree that most folks think picture book = PreK-1st grade.

  6. I’m kind of amazed that people attach so much meaning and power to a word I consider utterly innocuous. Nor do I understand how the joke can be gratuitous when the whole book is a build-up to it. I don’t think there’s a “wrong” response, I’m just kind of baffled, as if suddenly discovering that many people consider “bull” off-color.

    • I suppose these situations are always going to come down to a “I’m uncomfortable, but the next person isn’t” sort of result. If anything, this difference of opinion proves that “controversial” (and this one is real low on the scale) will never and should never go away. Viva choice!

      • Indeed. I enjoy reading reviews of books I’ve read written by people who felt the other extreme of my reaction. Sometimes I fall into assuming that my reaction is “normal” and then I’m astounded to find out it isn’t. Those of us with no memory are always enjoying the world anew.

  7. Did you see this review in the NYT Book Review: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/17/books/review/Gopnik-t.html? I thought that was well-said, too.

    I have to confess that while I have now bought this book for a few more people, I haven’t yet added it to the library’s collection, and we’re a public library. I tend to think of us as having more latitude than a school, and now that I know you’ve added it to your collection, I’m feeling like a bit of a wimp. With books like these, I ask myself what need they serve and who is out there who needs and wants the book, and I’m just not coming up with that patron in my head. I like to have that patron in my head when I order something I might have to wind up defending, and usually I do. This is challenging my perception of myself as a liberal buyer.

    I don’t know. I’ll keep mulling it over. Maybe I’ll go wild and ask some of my regular patrons what they think.

  8. “It’s a Book” by Lane Smith is simply a picture book made for adults. It would be completely inappropriate to read during storytime. The humor is too lofty in addition to the language. I understood and appreciated the point the point of the book…but elementary students won’t. Was the word simply chosen for shock value?

  9. We have the book in the collection and I’ve been sharing it often with parents who I think will enjoy the humor and see the opportunity. There’s always something in every library that will offend someone…

  10. After thinking about it, perhaps this was a way to make sure sales are strong. Nothing grows sales like controversy. Hmmm.

    • Ha – yes I have an entire conspiracy theory on this, but I felt it contained too much conjecture to actually discuss. I’ll just say you may have a point there.

  11. I know I’m coming kind of late to this, but I’ve been turning over in my mind what exactly makes me uncomfortable about this book.

    Honestly, I think it’s because I’m sick of the framed debate- Print versus Electronic: There Can Be Only One! You can only like print books, or you can only like electronic devices, and you should definitely call people who like the other thing stupid.

    I don’t like It’s A Book because I think it’s mean-spirited and smug. The use of Jackass bothers me not because it’s “naughty” but because it’s pejorative. I guess I just don’t see the point of the book. If you’re already a reader, it seems like a back-pat. If you’re not, this certainly may not urge you in that direction. I know a book doesn’t have to have a point, but I just don’t see why I’d bother putting it in my collection.

  12. I like It’s a Book. I think it’s for older kids; the book in question is Treasure Island, isn’t it? I sort of think this title will out-date itself really quickly with all IM-speak and twitterfeed nonsense. The play on words doesn’t necessarily bother me. Words have meaning and he, in fact, is a jackass.

  13. In brief – I live in NZ and my kids cackled like mad. They loved it. They adored it.
    I would discuss with them that it’s not nice to call anyone a jackass. .. but it is funny!! even if inappropriate.
    Also very relevant for them – they got it!
    My son 10 and daughter 7 are desperate to take it to school!
    A good discussion opportunity.